A room designed by prisoners

Gizmodo has an article this week about a room prototype built by inmates in Spoleto, Italy, who attended design workshops. It’s not intended to be a cell though it has the same dimensions; it is built with the lived experience of people who spend each day in a 96 square foot room. While the Freedom Room lacks the style of a tiny space by IKEA, the inmates designed it to have storage and useful surfaces.  Does this remind anyone else of Sam’s “2010 Center” ideal prison in Dreaming of Psychiatric Citizenship: A Case Study of Supermax Confinement by Lorna Rhodes?

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The former director of the prison had a thought-provoking reaction: 

“The heavy, mortifying restrictions placed on furnishings and accessories… tend to sharpen the wits of the detainees, who will try to make every possible use of the objects they are allowed to keep…. I sincerely hope that Prison Administrations will consider and adopt this project to promote a ‘culture’ of prison life which, for the first time, may be determined to a certain extent by the inmates themselves.”

I find myself cringing at the idea of an inmate-determined culture, but that’s because my notions of incarceration are (thankfully) shaped more by HBO’s Oz than by personal experience.  However, I think it makes a lot of sense to consult current or former inmates when designing prisons — not to make them cozy or vulnerable, but to see what basic human needs could be addressed without loss of security.  As I write this, there are 52 comments on the Gizmodo piece. Some understand the Freedom Room as a design project, but there is also a lively debate about what living conditions for inmates should be. Some examples:

“I don’t get this. They are in prison. There should be 4 bare walls and a toilet. Why should they live in nicer housing than I do? This is insane.”

“…That being said, whether you had an accidental life altering decision or your just a person who is inclined to do bad things, you need to be punished with discomfort. This is how society is enforced and why most of 360 million people in America are not in prison.”

“Holy Hell, let’s just put everybody in a box for years and see if they come out the other side sane and happy for work and living in the real world. If you place these people in an environment that promotes penance, education and learning, this- to me- seems the better nature for how to deal with those whose lives have been so damaged by their circumstances.”

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